A History of CUA Papal Visits
When Pope Francis visits Washington, D.C. this fall, he will celebrate Mass from the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23. The congregation for the Mass will gather on the area surrounding the steps, including The Catholic University of America’s 3.6 acre University Mall. The visit will mark the third time a pope has come to the campus of Catholic University. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited the campus in 1979 and 2008, respectively.
The papal visits highlight Catholic University’s role as the national University of the Catholic Church in the United States.
The University community only had seven weeks to prepare for Pope John Paul II’s visit, which took place on Oct. 7, 1979. Prior to the visit, the University called upon the services of a special-events decorating team to transform the old University gym into a site suitable for the pope’s address. The work crew attached pipes to the gym ceiling and hung yards of drapery. They also built a wooden stage out of theatrical risers, decorated the walls with CUA seals and banners, covered the gym with red carpeting and assembled flower arrangements.
On the day of the visit, Pope John Paul II first visited the Shrine (which had not yet been raised to basilica status), where CUA students lined the steps and cheered. Later, the pope delivered a major speech on Catholic higher education on campus. The crowd of 2,000 people included 240 heads of Catholic institutions of higher learning from around the country.
During his address, Pope John Paul II told the audience, “I cannot help but feel at home with you.” He called CUA a “great institution” and affirmed the responsibility of a Catholic university to set up “a real community which bears witness to a living and operative Christianity, a community where sincere commitment to scientific research and study goes together with a deep commitment to authentic Christian living.”
The University chorus and orchestra performed several times during the program including a hymn prepared by music professor Robert Ricks, “Serdeczna Matko.” The Pope’s visit to D.C. culminated with a Mass on the Washington Mall for approximately a million people.
When Pope Benedict XVI came to Catholic University in 2008, the University community had more time to prepare and, as a result, students played a larger role. In August 2007, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., then President of the University, learned the Pope would deliver an important address on Catholic education in April 2008.
In the months prior to Pope Benedict’s visit, nearly 400 CUA volunteers were recruited to execute the numerous tasks necessary for the Holy Father’s visit. Architecture students were commissioned to design the altar, papal chair, pulpit, and lectern to be used during the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Park. A choir of 17 music students were selected from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music to perform the eighth-century chant “Laudes Regiae: Christus Vincit,” as the Pope entered the University center’s Great Room.
On April 16, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Basilica to meet with U.S. bishops and preside over Solemn Vespers in the Crypt Church. While there, he greeted a crowd of thousands students and alumni who had gathered on the University Mall.
The next day, the Pope returned to campus and delivered his address on education at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center before a packed audience of more than 400 Catholic educators. While the Pope spoke, more than 1,000 students gathered on the lawn of CUA’s Columbus School of Law to watch the address live on a JumboTron.
During his address, Pope Benedict XVI greeted his audience as “bearers of wisdom” and spoke of education’s integral place in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News. Stressing the high expectations society places on Catholic educators, he told the audience that such expectation “places upon you a responsibility and offers an opportunity.”
The Pope spoke of “the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God,” especially the younger generation. Thus, he told the audience, “A particular responsibility for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith.”
Pope Francis announced in January that he will stop in Washington, D.C., and New York during his trip to the United States for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. While in Washington, he will visit The Catholic University of America and will canonize American missionary Blessed Junípero Serra during a Mass on the East Portico of the Basilica.